Not So Lost Classics

10.31.13

Famous for Not Being Famous: Enough About ‘Stoner’

Every month or so there’s another article rediscovering John Williams’ “lost” classic Stoner. Please stop—every literary type who cares already knows about it. Let’s rediscover someone else.

By the time you finish reading this sentence, seventeen more pieces will have been published on the subject of Stoner, “the greatest novel you’ve never heard of.” There appears to be no stopping the flood. Like the four Gospels, the articles, appreciations, analyses, and book reports all say essentially the same thing in slightly different ways. They tell the incredible story of the incredible novel written by someone you’ve never heard of, despite the fact that he won a National Book Award. The book itself you’ve definitely never heard of despite the fact that it’s been written about in one or two thousand reputable publications and blogs for the past several years, and was once recommended by little-known actor Tom Hanks in a charming little rag called Time magazine. Google “Stoner by John Williams” and you’ll find one claim after another—some posted as recently as six seconds ago—that you’ve never heard of it, despite the fact that, if you’re reading the book blogs and review pages in which these claims appear, you almost certainly have.

I read Stoner in 2006 or 2007, soon after the terrific New York Review of Books’ publishing imprint reissued it. Writing those words, I am reminded of the punk rock superiority with which my exasperated high school cohorts insisted that they had been wearing Doc Martens boots before wearing Doc Martens boots was cool. But don’t get the wrong idea. I didn’t read Stoner before it was cool. I read it at precisely the moment it became cool (again) and reentered the collective literary awareness. I didn’t happen upon Stoner by accident. I bought it because of an article I had read proclaiming it a great, underappreciated classic. I wasn’t too cool for Stoner then, and I’m not too cool for it now. I agreed with the hype—it was and is a very good book. I was glad it had been preserved and brought back into print and that I had been exposed to it. I was glad it was being taken seriously, and was even hyperbolically referred to as “a perfect novel” in a summer 2007 issue of The New York Times. But, even taking into account Stoner’s tremendous merit, there is something unusual happening in the case of this apparently-endless rediscovery of an already-rediscovered book.

In recent years, Stoner entered a category of which it soon became the quintessence. In trying to think of a proper parallel, the closest I could come was A Confederacy of Dunces. Both books are archetypical of a certain type of writerly fantasy. Whatever the real story behind A Confederacy of Dunces might be—and I refuse to consult Wikipedia here—the story that filtered down to us was that John Kennedy Toole wrote this brilliant, incredible work, failed to find a publisher for it despite its obvious merits, and killed himself. That book—due to the tenacity of Toole’s mother and the sharp eye of Walker Percy, to whom she showed the manuscript—went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

More than four decades on, Stoner has been rediscovered by anyone who would care about its rediscovery. That’s not such a long time.

Though it can feel as though there are an infinite number of routes to literary ruin, there are basically three ways to fail as a writer. One, you can not write anything at all, which is what most people who call themselves writers do. Two, you can write work that you believe to be of high quality but which fails to find a publisher. And three, you can get published and still fail to find an audience.

Tillie Olsen took a stab at uncovering and exploring the wherefores behind number one in her brilliant 1978 text Silences—a book that should be read by every writer, whether to rationalize one’s own silence or to shame you into productivity. For those who produce but fail to publish, John Kennedy Toole shares the “patron saint” title with Emily Dickinson. There is nothing more hopeful to a floundering author than the notion that after death’s sweet embrace someone might come along and see the genius in your toil.

Stoner is the world’s latest answer to the third way of failing. After your book is released by a proper publisher (Viking, in Williams’ case) and is still met by apathy, there exists this other fantastic possibility—that it might one day be rediscovered. Someone might pull your mouldering hardback from the bottom of the stack and point a neon sign at it. Or, as with Stoner, a whole lot of people might point a whole lot of neon signs at it.

The duration of Stoner’s revival is what’s especially interesting, particularly in an age so often scorned for its short attention span. This month alone The Texas Observer and The New Yorker online both published articles on the subject of its late success. The New Yorker describes Stoner’s unexpected triumph abroad as “one of those few gratifying instances of belated artistic justice.” It goes on to describe the novel as “largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti.” The Texas Observer notes that “Stoner may be the greatest novel ever written by a Texas-born writer you’ve likely never heard of.”

It is a given that there is an endless supply of other deserving-but-forgotten books upon which we could be lavishing some of this praise. Why, after so many articles and blog posts, do people keep returning to Stoner instead of making the leap to the work of Anna Kavan or Molly Giles? Why not write about Thomas Williams, that other neglected National Book Award winner with the same last name? Now that everyone who reads serious fiction has been hipped to it, why not skip the Stoner piece and introduce the world to someone truly neglected? Perhaps it’s that once a craze like this has been established, it gives writers the opportunity to join the Cult of the New while also being safely entrenched in sacred, safe, august tradition. My fear is that if we don’t put the brakes on soon, things could take an ugly turn. I can envision myself pushing past the sidewalk fanatics pressing copies of Williams’ work into the hands of passersby. Sir, sir! Have you heard the good news about Stoner?

Partly, of course, a cumulative effect is at work. The more people write about the book as an undiscovered gem, the more it sells and the more of a phenomenon it becomes, leading more people to write about it. A Telegraph article from June of this year—you’ll be absolutely shocked to hear that the book has found its way onto bestseller lists abroad—refers to it as an instance of “Lazarus literature.” It’s true that there’s a great deal of pleasure in these rediscoveries. Recent years have turned up such greats as Richard Yates, Paula Fox, Henry Roth, Hans Fallada, and Renata Adler.

But none of these authors’ works rival what has happened in the case of Stoner, particularly the coy astonishment feigned by writers at how a book like this could go so little known—as if all but the rarest of excellent books become bestsellers and join the vast personal libraries of the American public. As if anyone actually believes that true quality dictates whether or not a work will remain in print or be read, or that the public at large is reading these articles and clutching their pearls at their own ignorance. Honey, quick, turn off Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader! There’s a neglected American classic we’ve somehow missed!

Literature is essentially a niche interest, and, as such, is subject to its own microcosmic fads. No one can say what precisely makes something catch on. This case has been surprisingly tenacious, I think, partly because Stoner is a book about a literary scholar with a special affection for the written word, which naturally leads to the question, Are all these people who are ‘discovering’ Stoner actually just falling in love with an image they have of themselves? You can almost hear the internal dialogue. “This incredible book is about a frustrated writer and teacher of literature. Why in God’s name doesn’t everyone know about this astonishing piece of universal fiction?”

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Stoner is a relatively contemporary novel written in modern, colloquial English with none of the off-putting literary quirks of an older work. Lit blogger Joanne Sheppard wrote earlier this year, “There’s been a lot of hype about John Williams’ Stoner… so much so that I still keep half-wondering if the whole thing is an elaborate hoax that will be revealed as a clever marketing campaign.” She’s right in both senses—that the hype can feel like a hoax and that, given the contemporary feel of the writing in the book, it wouldn’t be that surprising to discover that a modern author had written it.

Mentioning the internet as an “echo chamber” is itself a lame fad, though there is such shorthand truth in the concept that I can rationalize its usage here. Reading Stoner, having read Stoner, owning Stoner and planning to read it—all of these things place you in a semi-rarified circle, someone inside the chamber. You are Someone Who Takes Literature Seriously. You’re invested in it. You know what’s cool and what isn’t. Stoner is cool. It really is, because it’s very good. And it’s even cooler for being cool in such an uncool way. Just a quiet book about an ordinary man leading a quiet, ordinary life. Maybe that’s why people keep writing these pieces, to don the badge of coolness while simultaneously deputizing others with the same.

It’s tough avoiding trends, even when you’re very self-conscious of them. I consider myself hyper-vigilant in this regard. No skinny jeans for me. No rubber bracelets announcing my favorite causes. No throwback eyeglasses or filters on my photos to give the impression of a time warp. All of these things I have studiously avoided, perhaps at the cost of my own pleasure and the appearance of fuddy-duddiness. I’m glad I haven’t avoided Stoner or that I came to it when it was cool, but before it was super cool. If there has to be a literary bandwagon, it’s certainly a pleasure when such fine work happens to be its focus.

But maybe it’s time to observe a moratorium on all these articles telling bookish types that we’ve never heard of a book we’ve all been hearing about for years. More than four decades on, Stoner has been rediscovered by anyone who would care about its rediscovery. That’s not such a long time. Posterity has a lot of deciding to do and a lot of time to do it in. Let’s hope for a revival in another forty years and forty years after that. Who knows what lies ahead for any of the novels that we call great today? Who knows what might be rediscovered next? From what I can tell every single book by R.V. Cassill is out of print. Let’s talk about that for a while.